Cloud Computing | Feature

Taking Your School Into the Cloud? Keep it Simple

Embarking on an enterprise-wide move to the cloud can prepare an institution for the demands of tomorrow's campus, but take the time to lay the groundwork.

For many schools embarking on ambitious, institution-wide moves to cloud services, one of the goals is somewhat surprising: They hope no one notices. "When it's done right, you shouldn't even notice it's a cloud service," explained Max Davis-Johnson, associate vice president of information technology at Boise State University(ID), which is midway through an intensive enterprise transformation that includes building an internal private cloud.

Boise State is one of several institutions, including the University of Washingtonand the E. Philip Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology (NY) that are embarked on lengthy programs to transform the technological underpinnings of their institutions and prepare their campuses for the world of 21st century learning. And cloud services play an integral part in these preparations. 

As any administrator or faculty member can attest, though, implementing anything on an enterprise-wide scale in higher education is a daunting task. The job gets even tougher in the realm of IT, since off-the-shelf technology solutions are so widely available to departments and individuals alike. Why wait for central IT?

In most cases, the key to success is to offer faculty and students the services they want and—equally important—simplicity of use.

It's been a driving force behind UW's Two Years to Two Decades Initiative, which aims to increase experiential learning and collaborative opportunities through cutting-edge pedagogy and transformative, integrated technologies. To chart its course, in 2009 UW asked more than 3,500 faculty, staff, student, and community stakeholders for their ideas on how to sustain excellence over the next two years in the face of declining state funding, as well as where they see the institution 20 years from now. As a result, some 12 technologies--bought, built, or borrowed-- are now on premise and in the cloud, some in pilot mode and others in full production.

The simplicity angle? Tying it all together is a single sign-on: With a washington.net ID and a single password, users this fall will have access to Microsoft Office 365 (replacing Live@edu.), Google Apps for Education, and the Canvas LMS from Instructure. In addition, 50 classrooms will be equipped with McGraw-Hill's Tegrity lecture capture solution. "We want to put students, faculty, and staff in the driver's seat," said Lewis, director of academic and collaborative applications. "These technologies give them that control."

Boise State is also taking steps to simplify processes by using what Davis-Johnson calls the Concept of One. "We seek out one technology to fulfill a goal as opposed to five. We might not get it down to one, but we work to find a consistent, efficient way to accomplish needs across the institution."

The university is midway through its Roadmap Project, a three-year program slated to run through spring 2014 that includes--in addition to an internal private cloud with virtual servers and storage--expanding the university's data warehouse and use of business intelligence; developing an individualized, unified web experience; improving and streamlining identity management and security; and expanding and improving document management.

For students, explained Davis-Johnson, the goal is to put everything at their fingertips; for faculty, the emphasis is on access. To provide this ease of use and ready access, more than a dozen elements of the Roadmap Project--many of them cloud based-- are underway, with numerous new benefits at the ready. Notably, this fall students and employees will be able to access my.BoiseState for a variety of services including Google Apps, Gmail, and Blackboard Learn.

The E. Philip Saunders College of Business (SCB) is also implementing a private, cloud-based infrastructure to support its teaching and learning innovations. In fact, SCB is one of the first business schools accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACBS) to implement such an infrastructure. "Despite its apparent benefits, institutions of higher education have been reluctant to jump into this model," noted John Tu, associate dean for faculty development. "We believe cloud computing is the future of higher ed and determined to give it a try."

While the backend of SCB's tech infrastructure will be radically different, the IT team hopes that the biggest change experienced by users will be better performance. "Will users be able to tell that changes have been made?" posited Sean Hansen, a member of the Management Information Systems faculty at SCB. "The answer here is both yes and no."

As part of the school's Business Cloud Computing Initiative, old desktop computers have been replaced by thin clients, which take up much less space and use much less energy. In addition, students, staff, and faculty will experience enhanced remote-connection capability, fewer application and machine crashes, less maintenance downtime, increased file-storage capacity, and faster access to a broader variety of software. "On the flip side, for those who don't want significant changes, the computing experience could feel exactly the same as before, albeit faster," added Hansen.

According to Hansen, the cloud-computing model fosters a wide range of financial and procedural advantages in the areas of scalability, operational efficiency, information security, and ongoing maintenance and support. "Despite a few challenges, which are inevitable in IT projects of this scale, the project has been a tremendous success," he noted.

Buy-In Is Critical
While keeping it simple is a tried-and-tested way of winning converts among faculty and students, it's not always enough. On almost every campus, gaining widespread support from faculty, students, and staff requires plenty of upfront planning, coordination, and old-fashioned salesmanship.

 "Changing mindset is an ongoing effort," noted Lewis. "It's a matter at trust. I need to build relationships, provide the vision, sell the vision, and make sure everyone feels good about our technology plans. If you've done a good job building relationships, people will have faith in what you've done in the past and be willing to try something new."

As part of Boise State's plan to build trust in its Roadmap Project, open forums are held so campus users can make themselves heard, and a second location of The Zone, a walk-in technology support center, will provide training on the new technologies.

To communicate the new offerings at UW, IT uses various push mechanisms, including newsletters, as well as increased outreach by curriculum coordinators and informational pieces in the daily student newspaper. Workshops taught by students will offer training to students wanting a crash course on topics such as Google Apps and Tegrity.

No school can undertake a massive overhaul of its tech infrastructure on its own. To increase the chances of success, vendor partnerships are also key. As it attempted to integrate existing systems seamlessly with new cloud-based solutions, for example, Boise State looked to Google and Oracle, which the school considers to be strong partners.

Oracle provides the university with PeopleSoft Human Capital Management, PeopleSoft Financials, and PeopleSoft Student Administration. "As Boise State moves to the cloud, one of the new primary roles for IT will be as an integrator and aggregator," noted Davis-Johnson. "The Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) and web services that are part of Oracle's PeopleSoft suite allow us to tie together our cloud services and partners to our enterprise systems confidently and securely, no matter where or who they are."

As for Google's suite of cloud-based services, Davis-Johnson likes the ease of use and the unlimited capacity, and he's excited about the evolution of numerous well-loved cloud-based apps. The university now utilizes Google Drive for departmental and student storage, for example, and also promotes Google Hangouts for connecting by video chat.

At UW, Lewis's team worked with Tegrity to customize its lecture capture capabilities. The teamwork resulted in a cloud resource that is even more useful to IT's campus constituents. "What's exciting is watching to see how users will expand its potential to new contexts," explained Lewis. "Both Tegrity and Canvas, for instance, can be used by ad hoc groups of students working independently or in the course context."

comments powered by Disqus